If you’ve ever felt guilty over “liking” one of your children more than another at some point, don’t. When you have multiple children, it’s a given that they’ll take turns pissing you off. It’s only when one child consistently gets placed on a pedestal that a real problem can arise — and it’s called “golden child syndrome.”

What is golden child syndrome? Simply put, it’s a family dynamic where one child is treated as superior to their siblings. While there is no clinical definition or diagnosis for golden child syndrome, it is real and can have long-lasting adverse effects on a child and their siblings. However, one expert wants to assure parents that golden child syndrome typically only occurs when there is pronounced favoritism over an extended period.

Katie Dorn, mom of seven and founding partner at EmpowerU, spoke with me about this family dynamic, including how to spot a golden child in the making and tips for giving each child a healthy amount of praise and support.

What causes golden child syndrome, and how do you know if your child has it?

Dorn says it often develops when parents put too much emphasis on high achievement or project their ambitions onto a child. “The parenting behaviors that usually lead to this syndrome involve giving excessive attention and praise to one child, which can inadvertently sideline the emotional and developmental needs of the other children in the family.”

But how can you tell if your kid has developed golden child syndrome? What are some of the early indicators?

“When a child seems overly focused on pleasing a parent to the point where they show signs of stress or anxiety related to performance and achievement, it’s time to pay attention,” explains Dorn. She warns that a high-expectation parenting style can backfire, playing out as a child’s reluctance to try new activities for fear of failing, which can, in turn, lead to intentional underachieving.

What mental health challenges can it cause?

You might think that a sense of entitlement or bratty behavior would be the hallmark of this syndrome in a child, but people-pleasing turns out to be a very telling indicator.

“Children labeled as the ‘golden child’ often face significant pressure to meet their parents’ high expectations. This can drive them to prioritize their parents’ happiness over their own desires, leading them to lose touch with what they truly want or value. As a result, these children often struggle to make independent decisions and find it difficult to deal with setbacks and challenges, which can cause a range of mental health issues like anxiety, low self-esteem, and a fragile sense of self,” says Dorn.

Other signs your child may be struggling with golden child syndrome include:

  • Trouble with boundaries
  • Difficulty establishing their identity or sense of self
  • An overwhelming fear of failure
  • A high need to achieve
  • “Adulting” sooner than necessary

Because siblings tend to gauge how much their parents love them based on how they are treated in relation to their siblings, having a sibling treated as more special or valuable can deteriorate a child’s sense of self-worth and leave them confused and jealous.

“Labeling one child as the golden child can create rifts among siblings, leading to feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, or resentment. Siblings may perceive the treatment as unequal and feel less valued or loved, which can damage their self-esteem and emotional development. This dynamic can strain sibling relationships and disrupt the overall harmony within the family,” explains Dorn.

How do you create a balanced family dynamic?

As a mother of seven, Dorn says she has had her fair share of questions like “Am I your favorite?” In response, she reassures her kids that she loves them equally and appreciates their unique qualities.

Here are her other tips for ensuring each child feels seen, heard, and valued.

1. Encourage effort over outcome.

Focus on the effort put into a task rather than the outcome. This helps children develop a growth mindset and value hard work and perseverance. Say things like, “I can see how hard you worked on this paper — you must feel proud of that,” instead of, “This is amazing — you are such a talented writer. That makes me so happy and proud.”

2. Don’t compare.

Recognize each child’s unique gifts, talents, and motivations and help them develop these to become the best versions of themselves. Avoid comparing siblings and instead foster a safe environment where all children feel free to express themselves.

3. Balance expectations.

Set realistic and balanced expectations that take into consideration each child’s abilities, interests, and motivations. Involve them in setting their own goals that are attainable and fair, which helps prevent undue pressure.

4. Offer equitable support and praise.

Make a conscious effort to distribute praise and support equitably among all children. Be mindful of recognizing each child’s efforts and achievements, not just the outcomes.

5. Practice open communication.

Foster an environment where open and honest communication is encouraged. Allow children to express their feelings about expectations and pressures they might feel.

6. Spend individual time with each child — and yourself.

Dedicate one-on-one time with each child, even if it’s just 5 to 10 minutes each morning or at bedtime, to listen and give them your full attention. Doing so will help you appreciate their unique qualities and better understand their needs. Similarly, carve out time for yourself. Raising a family is demanding, and taking moments to reflect and recharge is crucial for maintaining a balanced and supportive home environment.